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The young Blackpool forward has shown remarkable strength to take this step – he deserves the freedom now just to play
Well played, Jake Daniels. Applause, please. And thank you for your leadership. Football, sport, male environments and, indeed, the wider world have all become slightly more sane places with the news that Daniels has decided to discuss publicly the fact that he is not only a professional footballer but a gay man.
The first part of this is, of course, not remarkable. The second part is. To those unfamiliar with football’s internal workings it might seen genuinely loopy that this should even be news, that a trailblazer is required, and indeed that this should turn out to be a teenager who made his debut for Blackpool two weeks ago. But make no mistake this is both a remarkable moment for men’s professional football and a sterling show of courage from a 17‑year‑old, yet to establish himself in his industry; but unwilling, as he says, “to pretend”.
For men’s football – and indeed men’s sport, professional and amateur – this is the sound of a wall being torn down. It is 32 years since Justin Fashanu became the first and until now only male British professional footballer to come out as gay, in his case via a salacious newspaper splash. Fashanu played on for seven years in various leagues, but he suffered terribly at the hands of his sport, his family and the wider public.
Thomas Hitzlsperger, a Premier League player and German international, revealed in retirement that he is gay. The Australian Josh Cavallo came out last year, aged 22, and is playing regularly for Adelaide United in the A-League. Beyond this women’s sports have shown the way on this front. Openly gay players and indeed managers are a part of the everyday landscape in women’s football. The England women’s cricket team has a long-term couple in it.
Men’s cricket had a flash of light when Steven Davies came out while he was still an England player 11 years ago. Davies is still going strong. But he is yet to be followed by anyone else.
And this is the real significance of Daniels’s openness, and indeed why none of this should be taken lightly. It is temping to shrug and tut at football, to chide it for lagging behind the more liberated sections of society. But the fact is football does, as ever, reflect its environment. And there is a massive problem still with homophobia in Britain and the wider world, from everyday abuse and violence, to the anxiety young people might have over coming out to parents and friends, to institutional and religious intolerance.
Daniels’s courage will speak to all those other footballers – and there have of course been plenty – who have lived through that narrow culture. It will provide a different model, a different version of the future for young people playing the sport now at any level. But it will have resonance beyond, too. People do need role models. The backing for Daniels from his club, the FA and the PFA is significant and not just within the sport. Yes, normal life is simply being normalised here. Slow handclap, football. What kept you? But society is not always nice or liberal or progressive. This is football using its platform in a good way.
It will, of course, be far from straightforward. Daniels will face other barriers. There will be kickback and resistance, from misguided banter to genuine abuse; to moments of awkwardness and doubt, the micro-adjustments others will have to make in this deeply ritualistic male industry.
Things are never as easy as we might hope. But listening to him speak it was impossible not to feel proud and also protective. It has required remarkable strength and clarity of mind to take this step aged 17. Football will now goggle a little, scratch its head and search for the right words.
The best response is, as ever, support, admiration and the freedom from here just to play.